LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, LeBron James sat in the interview room inside Crypto.com Arena and told the world what keeps him motivated to play in the NBA.
“If my mind goes, then my body will just be like, ‘OK, what are we doing?'” James said after the third game of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ first-round win against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The subject that precipitated the answer was the idea of staying in the league long enough to play alongside his eldest son, Bronny, who had committed to USC earlier in the day on May 6.
Publicly, James had been crystal clear about his feelings about retirement. Contractually, he has two years and $97.1 million dollars remaining. But spiritually, he showed the first signs of doubt Monday night after the Lakers’ season ended despite an incredible Game 4 effort by James on both sides of the court in a 113-111 Game 4 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals.
“We’ll see what happens going forward,” James said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest. Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball.”
When ESPN’s Dave McMenamin asked him to clarify, James confirmed he was talking about “if I want to continue to play.”
It was a stunning sentiment in the wake of what had been an all-time performance by James until Nuggets guard Jamal Murray grabbed the basketball out of his hands on the final play of the game to secure the sweep and Denver’s first NBA Finals berth. James had 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and nearly willed the Lakers past a team he later said was the best he and Anthony Davis had faced in their four years together in Los Angeles.
Maybe it was the disappointment of the moment talking. James had played all but four seconds of Monday’s game, defending both Nikola Jokic and Murray for long stretches. The longest view in sports is the road back to the place your season just ended.
Maybe it was a leverage play to pressure vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka into retaining some of the core players who’d emerged for the Lakers during this improbable playoff run or to pursue free-agent-to-be Kyrie Irving, who just happened to be in attendance Monday night (and sitting under the same basket where James was unable to get that final shot off).
Maybe it was the nostalgia of seeing his friend Carmelo Anthony retire earlier Monday, with a video James helped him record a week prior.
Only James knows what precipitated those thoughts of retirement. But he said it out loud, and so the NBA world will wait with baited breath until he speaks on it again.
The Nuggets had left the arena by the time the full weight of what they might have just done landed. Advancing to the first NBA Finals in team history was still soaking in.
But sending James into the offseason contemplating his future in basketball? That’s something no one could see coming.
Not after James had scored the most points in a quarter (23) and a half (31) in his playoff career to stake the Lakers to a 15-point halftime lead.
“Having coached him for five years in Cleveland, he understood what time it was with their team, firmly back against the wall,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of James’ Game 4 performance.
“In that first half he showed why he’s one of the all-time great players. [James] literally put his team on his back and just went at us.”
But the Nuggets responded to James’ best shot in the third quarter, erasing the Lakers’ lead with a 34-14 run as Jokic pushed the pace at every opportunity.
“That’s all him,” Malone told ESPN. “He’s like a point center. That’s who he is. That’s who he’s been and that’s when we’re at our best.”
Jokic and the Nuggets should be the focus after their brilliant play in this series. But there are nine days until Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a giant question now looming after James’ parting statements.
Malone might quibble with attention shifting to the Lakers, as he did after the first game of this series. He will definitely use it as motivation for his team going forward.
Jokic will not.
“I think you’re just happy that you won a game,” Jokic said. “You beat a really, really good team. Every game but the first game was so close. Anyone could have won it, and we just find a way to win the game. Especially we were down 15, to come back and win the game, it was just probably happiness. I think that’s the emotions.”
After he scored what proved to be the winning basket, Jokic went into a nondescript tunnel, sat down on a bench in the makeshift weight room that had been set up for the visiting team and went through a punishing lower body workout.
Jokic has lifted weights after every game he was able to for the past four seasons, knowing that the only way he’d earn true respect in this league is if he was the last man standing at the end of the season.
This is how it is for every all-time great. He has won two MVP awards. Monday night, he won the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP award after his NBA playoff-record eighth triple-double of the postseason with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in 45 minutes. But individual awards start to wear heavy on one’s head after a while.
“Nothing,” Jokic said when ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked him what it meant to be named the MVP of the conference finals during the on-court trophy presentation.
An hour afterward, Jokic even went out of his way to say Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid deserved the regular-season MVP award this season and that it was “mean” for anyone to say he didn’t.
Some of that is genuine respect and empathy Jokic has for the plight Embiid finds himself in after Philadelphia’s dispiriting second-round playoff loss.
Jokic has been in that position himself — with critics questioning the MVP awards he won that were not backed up by playoff success.
This is how it goes for players such as James and Jokic when a season ends short of a championship.
“I don’t like to say it’s a successful year because I don’t play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career,” James said.
Now he’ll decide whether to keep playing while Jokic and the Nuggets play for their first championship.